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John Wick (2014)
Non stop monotony--beautifully filmed but a linear plot
John Wick (2014)
I thought the weak point of this movie would be Keanu Reeves, since he's not the best actor in town. But instead it was the monotony of the killing, on and on, all at the same pace, with hardly a break.
I'm not complaining about violence herethat's what this kind of revenge movie is all about. Reeves plays a guy who used to be a trained assassin, one of the best, and he has to come out of retirement (you'll see why in the first ten minutes). And he is now after some of the people he once worked for, so they are formidable foes, and cruel.
But that's about it. The process of getting even takes up the rest of the movie, and there are the necessary clubs and warehouses, the muscle car antics and the flipping and diving while shooting your guns with perfect accuracy. Mostly there is just shooting and fighting and fighting and shooting.
So, how to make a movie that has this one-liner idea work? With psychology, cleverness, surprise, and even failure sometimes. You won't see any of that here. You also won't see humor. By luck, the preview for my showing (in a theater) was "Die Hard," and what a reminder of a terrific action movie, where one guy has to kill a whole slew of enemies. But there it's funny, there are constant twists and turns, and you actually care about the hero.
That's another problem here: you care about Mr. Wick because he was wronged at the start, but he's not a sympathetic person. You just don't really worry about him. I suppose you know he won't die right away, so you are "on his side" more or less, but not with much investment. In a weird way, some of the villains were more compelling than Wickthe main bad guy is a terrific Michael Nyqvist (who is always really good), and Willem Dafoe plays a terrific small, key part.
I might have left a movie this straight forward if it weren't for one thingit's photographed well. The camera, light, and generally the editing, are all elegant and almost pretty, in a good way. The sets are filmed in a logical way that moves you through the spaces through the eye of the camera with confidence and dark beauty. Good stuff, and it had my eyes glued.
Now give the thing something more and glue the rest of me.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Well done and dazzling at every turn...and funny!
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
What a hoot! This is a great spoof while still being a terrific action-adventure comic book romp. It is great? Aw, shucks, it ain'tbut it tries so hard and has so many laughs it's a must-see.
It's crazy to bother to outline the plot (it's a formula of power and evil and some sweet innocent good guys and girls against the odds). And there are so many main and minor characters you can't make that simple, either. But it's how they interact that makes it flow. And how they push and push the conventions to make it absurd and clever and truly witty. It's funny! You'll laugh, and laugh some more.
Look for lots of bright humor, good character development, and clichés upon clichés. This is what it's trying to do and it does it beautifully. Expensive and expansive to make, but handled with real professional focus. A surprise, after many more routine blockbuster computer graphics superhero nonsense. Can't wait for the sequel.
The Cold Lands (2013)
Straight up and pretty dull take on an edgy idea
The Cold Lands (2013)
A simple premisea teenage kid raised to be a loner and staunchly independent finds his only parent now deadturns into a quest for survival. He doesn't quite live off the land, but he does become a scavenger, and has to break the law in small ways to get enough to live. It's all interesting, if a bit straight forward. It's almost like someone said, here's a cool idea, this kid living solo by his wits, but then they didn't know what to do with the idea.
A second character does come into play, and this takes the plot in a whole new and interesting direction. The acting here is good, and the believable settings continue to hold us in. But this oddly become a little routine, also. Not that what they do to keep going is ordinary, quite, but it is what it is, and we follow along.
What is missing is a deeper sense of the psychology. Or maybe, if you want to say the kid is young enough he's just acting on survival instincts, that needs to be revealed. But instead we have plot and more plot, and the plot is weirdly thin. The presence of Lili Taylor in the beginning is terrificbut she's the mom who dies. Not a spoilerthis is the essence of the trailer and the promo material.
There are eventually small surprises and charms here, so maybe give this a shot. But don't expect much.
Lucía y el sexo (2001)
Eleven points for artistic ambition, and achieving beauty, even with its overly affected editing and stylizing
Sex and Lucia (2001)
A fascinating, moving, beautiful, sexy movie. Yes, it's about sex, and there are lots of sex scenes, some of them surprisingly graphic. But it's not about sex at all, in a way or at least the bigger point is about recovery, and finding love, and the power of goodness. This makes it all sound sappy or sensational, and some people might find it so. But I think it is extremely serious and probing. And if this territory is not completely new, it's suddenly fresh and intriguing.
And confusing. If there is one stumbling block for many it has to be the deliberately convoluted plot, and the convoluted way the plot is told through several time periods and with interchanging roles, or what seem to be people whose positions alter in each others' brains.
Or not! What I mean is, I think it kind of makes sense, maybe perfect sense, if you study it. The key to it all, both the characters and what happens to them, is a writer and his book(s). Because one of the main characters is also the writer's most devoted (and obsessed) reader, the fictional elements become true, or at least get blurred with the truth, and so what the viewer sees (poor depraved viewer at this point) is partial and suggestive and puzzling.
Which is exactly why the movie is so good. You have to let go of the facts a little and hang onto the mood, and to the characters (and the actors) who are quite real and palpable. In fact, one of the things that makes this so significant is the high level of actingthe author and the three main women that come through his world over six or seven years. The emotional intensity, from joy (and ecstasy) to horror (and grief) is quite intense.
There is a lingering feeling of awkwardness to the production of the movie. It's not just that it's a hair low budgetthis is part of the feel of it, and it's quite beautiful overallbut that it uses certain editing quirks and filming styles (like blown out highlights in some scenes) to create effect. Sometimes this is helpful for keeping track of different points in the shifting narrative. Sometimes you are too aware of it. At least the first time.
I've seen this only once, and I can imagine watching it again someday. It might well grow on you, getting a little clarity but also revisiting the emotional dips and peaks a second time. One small heads up for people who might need to knowthere is a rather too-long section near the start with lots of frank and varied sex, and it drags a bit (and is too self-indulgent for the plot), but then the rest of the movie largely avoids it (not completely!). So if this is a turn-off, get through that part and see what turns up next.
The movie never expands outside its small group of characters or its limited range of sets and locations, but it inhabits these places with increasing interest. Director/writer Julio Medem has succeeded at something here. See what it is.
Lost Boundaries (1949)
Dated and imperfect--but in the gaps are good reminders and insights
Lost Boundaries (1949)
This affected me more than I would have expected. I mean, the changes in how we see race and "race relations" since 1949 are huge. The acting is really solid, if not searingly intense (which it has room for). And the narrative is complex enough with a few turning points to make it all interesting.
There is a sense as you watch that you're being shown a social issue and that the jury is already in. We know what we are supposed to feel, and we feel it. There is also a sense of something that doesn't happen much any morethe well known trick of "passing," which means being an African-American (usually) who is light skinned enough to "pass" as white. This is no small thing, since it required a social shift and truly living a "white" American's life, including both the advantages and the inner angst of having left behind your own roots.
So it's important stuff, and good stuff. And it was more compelling in its details and acting than you might think, being both socially loaded and a bit low budget. The production standards are high, however, and the results make it worth watching. I frankly did more than confirm what I already knew about the era and race in America. I realigned a little, feeling more than reminded, but also a little educated.
Yes, the approach here is outdated, and it ignores the true range of racism and hatred of the time, even in the supposedly enlightened New England setting here. But it has the truth woven into the stylized telling. If you think you already know all this, give it a look anyway. It's imprtant enough to try.
Green Dolphin Street (1947)
Improbable, slightly stiff and bland period piece...
Green Dolphin Street (1947)
What a perfect cast for a heavy drama. Even as the MGM lion roars, the orchestra announces deep doom. Lana Turner is a sultry and often ambiguous leading woman. Van Heflin is that great star who doesn't steal all the women. And then Donna Reed of course must be the "good" woman. It all adds up. The one weak link, if we have to start there, is the director, Victor Seville, a product of the routine British film industry of the 1930s, competent but stiff, especially for 1947.
Green Dolphin Street, the street, is fictional, though meant to be set in New Zealand. Hence the British coattails. The famous song, "On Green Dophin Street," comes from the movie, and led to a famous Miles Davis and Bill Evans versions, which outstrip the movie. The movie is the only case, as far as I know, that joins the two actors who played legendary characters; the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) and Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn, from "Miracle on 34th Street"). Morgan, in particular, plays the same sort of charmed character as the famous wizardor more accurately the charlatan in the wagon at the start of that 1939 MGM movie.
I say all this to point out the limitations of the this post-war oddity. The previous roles of the actors intrude on their performances here. (Even the appearance of Gladys Cooper made me think more of "The Bishop's Wife" than this movie. Maybe it's me.) Blame Seville, I think. Mostly there is an attempt to be "epic" and create a huge, sweeping drama that seems limited and invented for the screen. Everything is fine, but fine is just what it is. Oh, the disasters make it exciting, and the acting is rather nice. You won't be disappointed as long as you keep your perspective in handcuffs.
So what works best? Actually, Van Heflin is terrific, playing a role a bit more exaggerated than he usually goes fora pirate, of sorts (a sailor and stowaway). And when you get to the huge plot twist (halfway through) you might even laugh. It's so tragic and improbablepurely the product of a writer's imaginationyou have to at least sit up and say, oh dear! (That 1947-speak for NFW!) Anway, it does spice things up, and so the partying takes on a certain desperation, at least in the background.
Anyway, there are the special effects, which won an Oscar, and the generally high level of production, an MGM style very visible. But even if it was truly popular on its release, I think it's too dated now to make much of a dent on most us in the 21st Century. Watch warily.
Devil's Advocate (1997)
Overrated, over slick, laughable acting--it rubbed me the wrong way
Devil's Advocate (1997)
A highly regarded movie in some circles, and I think because of the idea and the intensity of what's implied (implied more than made palpable). Yes, in real life, this would go places. But it's a fairly routine flick with one of Hollywood's least interesting actors in the main role. I'm talking Keanu Reeves, of course. There is the idea of the devil incarnate, which is the big hook of the movie, but this is almost a comic book version, exaggerated and campy.
Okay, yeah, there's the familiar thrill of a couple trying to move into high society and finding it filled with evil, carnal and monetary and otherwise. And there's the idea of a lawyer defending a man who is obviously bad, but the job overrides morality. All is well done enough on some level, but what an exaggerated hooha about nothing! This movie makes a mountain out of some very old ideas.
Al Pacino? Overacting and painful to watch at times, he's still a reasonable Hollywood devil. Reeves, the pretty boy who can't act? He really can't! More proof. People have commented that this is his greatest film, or that here at least we see him at his best! Hmph. He's reasonable, but imagine a better actor overwhelmed with ambition success and losing his loving wife and his sanity all at once. Now that's a lot of material for an actor to make hay from.
So what do we make of the plot, a crystallization of evil? Well, the devil is, of course, a bad fellow. He has infinite power it seems, but uses it judiciously. That makes no real sense, but you have to go with it. Supernatual effects will show up here in all kinds of bizarre and sensationalist places. If that's your thing, and you're a sexist man (there are lots of women who are purely eye candy), go for it. Sorry dudes, it's true. Swallow hard. Not my thing.
Finally, the plot is over the top. (John Grisham wrote it, remember.) It's about excess and flashy twists. The Anti-Christ? Sure, go there, for kicks. Vanity? Come on, is that what this was finally all about? Didn't we know that in the first few minutes?
Is this an unredeemed mess? Not quite, I suppose. The movie as a whole ends up being a solid supernatural lawyer film, and the script is straight forward narrative stuff to the point that it seems banal, except you see the screen shifting its shape as you watch.
17 filles (2011)
Slightly insightful, but not wholly convincing or worthwhile
17 Girls (2011)
Lots of mid-teen girl stuff on French beaches. And yet supposedly a social issue movie about a rash of intentional pregnancies at a high school. There are scenes between the girls that pry into contemporary youth culture but only get the lid off. This is a sensational idea with the depth of a single gasp.
Even stranger, once you get into it, is how the movie makers, the writer/director pair Delphine and Muriel Coulin (both did both), took an American high school news story and adapted it to this small industrial coastal city in France. It doesn't right true. The utter rebellion of the kids to reason, their various trajectories around peer pressure and media hype, and the general glibness of some of the school reactions all seem a bit callous, and without nuance.
There is an attempt at depth (and some of the best acting) though the main character, Camille, played by Louise Grinberg. Here the need for such rebellion seems to have roots in her psyche and her family situation. How this effect "spreads" and becomes an easy viral sense of irresponsibility is not given much thought, however. There are three or four other girls who are given some complexity, but not enough to quite explain their motiviations.
Maybe the project was doomed when the writers faced the central problemthis is both about a large effect (over a dozen girls, en masse) and an individual problem (one by one). How to do both? Especially when it happens pretty much simultaneously.
There is a low budget documentary on the real deal"The Gloucester 18" which is apparently (from their press kit) a kind of public service piece against teen pregnancy and there is a TV series in Spanish called "El Pacto" that supposedly expands on the sensational aspects of the story. I'm not sure any of it is worth the trouble more than just reading a new article about the phenomenon. The movie here is curious at first, slow to get going, and has a few interesting moments, but it hardly holds up over an hour and a half.
Gone Girl (2014)
Tightly made, slow to get going but then it gets going in classic thriller fashion
Gone Girl (2014)
First a warningdon't read any (ANY) reviews about this movie unless you want to have at least a little of the plot surprises ruined. I've tried hard to not say too much here, but it's impossible to be perfect. Read on, here and elsewhere, with caution.
On the surface, "Gone Girl" is a common thriller formula. A husband and wife are having a tense time of it, one of them seems to have committed a crime, the main character seems to be wrongly accused. And then some facts pop up in the wrong places and the story gets more creepy and complicated. This is what thrillers doset up a murder, set up a likely perp, have the facts lead us in circles through lots of spooky territory.
On those terms this is fairly straight up story-telling. Yes, there is a sort of big twist an hour into the film, though you see it coming. But there are bigger twists in better thrillers. And yes there is some chilling psychology at play, both with the leading man, Ben Affleck, who plays a very regular guy with almost too much regularness (he's sometimes a bore), and with the leading woman, Rosamund Pike, who keeps it in check beautifully.
So what does actually make this movie hum along so well, once it gets going? The filmmaking. The formal, technical aspects of a movie make it good, in that slick David Fincher way (remember "Fight Club" above all). Transpose this plot into a film noir setting with sparse, contrasty black and white and much faster editing and, well, you have a better movie, perhaps. But you have the same resulta movie that uses drama in the camera, editing, and sound to propel the twisty plot.
There are some good commentaries out there about the roles the men and women get, and how they reflect on society. There is the chief detective, a smart and wily woman without the coy maternal edge of McDormand in "Fargo." There is the African- American lawyer who lights up every scene (this is none other than Tyler Perry, and he's great) and who is maybe the only one who gets what's going on outside of the couple themselves. And there is the wife, about whom I can say nothing.
So, yeah, get past the opening half hour which is kludgey and slow. Smell the quickening plot in the second half hour, and then hold on for the real stuff, the final three half hours as the conflicts actually clash and cause smoke and fire. To call this a post-modern thriller that wears its clichés proudly on its sleeve might be an excuse for using so many clichés, but it's all well done, very well done. See it.
Her Sister's Secret (1946)
It's an Ulmer film, but it's no Detour...solid dramatic stuff from the mainstream
Her Sister's Secret (1946)
An enchanting double-entendre title, and a slightly forced but still effective melodrama. The time is intenseWorld War IIand the desperation of lonely men and women leads to the crux of the plot, a child born out of wedlock.
This only happens after some decent character development, mainly between the man, a charming average fellow played by Phillip Reed, and the woman, who is the main character, Toni, played by a charming Nancy Coleman. Neither actor is well known, and you might make a case for their plainness here. Both are convincingly normal peoplenot the glowing stars that live in someone else's universe.
Because these regular folk are facing a pretty common problem, though one that was hushed up or swept up at the time, at least amidst the upper middle classes depicted here. The large twist is the immediate solution to the problem, a believable convenience in wartime. It leads to emotional conflicts and some heartwrenching decisions, and eventually to a crisis involving really good and well-meaning people.
Such is a melodrama.
The filming is typical amazing 1940s Hollywood, dramatic and silky. Cameraman Franz Planar has a huge resume of quite good but not stellar films, but I've seen a number of them recently and am impressed by a steady professional richness to them all (I'm thinking of "Bad for Each Other," an odd but beautiful Charlton Heston vehicle). This visual sense helps hold the film up as it rises and falls through the streets of Mardi Gras to house interiors. It's all rather enjoyable if never quite riveting and demanding.
This movie might be forgettable if not for the cult favorite director, Edgar Ulmer. And it truly is his panache that lifts a B-movie to something worth watching. It lacks the dazzle of his famous movies like "The Black Cat," but it still has a slightly daring social twist for the time. Give it a go on a quiet night when you can get absorbed.